Iran violated international law earlier this month by arresting 10 U.S. sailors and their two naval craft and holding them overnight, U.S. legal experts say.
The Navy Times reported:
The U.S. riverine boats had the right to pass expeditiously through Iran’s territorial waters under the right of innocent passage without being boarded and arrested so long as they weren’t engaged in a military operation such as spying. Pentagon officials have said the riverine boat crews mistakenly entered Iran’s waters in the Persian Gulf due to a “navigation error” while en route to a refueling. … Iran did not have the legal standing to arrest the sailors at gunpoint and that demands a U.S. response, said one expert.
“This should be very concerning for the Navy community,” said James Kraska, a maritime law expert at the U.S. Naval War College. “This says that U.S. vessels don’t have innocent passage and that their sovereign immunity is not respected.”
The experts cited the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, by which the U.S. abides, which allows a warship “innocent passage” through territorial waters of another country so long as it moves continuously and does not conduct military operations. Iran has signed the law but not ratified it.
“Subject to this Convention, ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea,” the Law of the Sea rules read.
“Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.”
The rules also includes “stopping and anchoring” in the definition of innocent passage. A professor and marine law expert at the University of Washington School of Law said that Iran had the right to question the sailors or expel them from their waters but not to detain them.
“They can say ‘You are no longer conducting an innocent passage, get out,’” Craig Allen, the professor, said. “You expel them–you don’t haul them into your port.”
While Iran has accused the sailors of snooping, the Pentagon has denied it.
Despite what several experts agree is a violation of the Law of the Sea rules, Iran has yet to be punished for arresting the sailors. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Iran the day the sailors were released from custody.
“I … want to thank the Iranian authorities for their cooperation and quick response,” Kerry said on January 13.
The same day, Iran state media released images of the American sailors being arrested with their hands over their head. Their equipment and weapons were seized, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel were photographed rifling through their documents and weapons.
The Pentagon’s first public account of the incident confirmed that the sailors were arrested at gunpoint and that the Iranian military likely removed two SIM cards from phones that belonged to the sailors.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently praised the Navy unit that captured the sailors for their “courage” and “strong faith.”
“You did an excellent job,” Khamenei said, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. “Certainly, it was the divine job that sent the Americans straying into our territorial waters only to be promptly captured with their hands behind their heads.”
The sailors’ arrest came just before the official implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran, which will release an estimated $100 billion in sanctions relief to the country.